Biblical apologetics are historical apologetics. What do I mean? At least five points come to mind.
1. Apologetics are not Scripturalist.
Scripturalism is somewhat analogous to Scientism. Scientism has become a major religion in the West. Scientism is the belief that science is the only means to knowledge. (Of course, the claim, ‘Science is the only means to knowledge’ is itself unknowable through science, and hence scientism is self-refuting.) Scripturalism, then, is something like the belief that Scripture, or the Bible, is the only means to knowledge. The difficulty here is that the Bible itself rejects such a claim. Knowledge is available through God’s creation (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1.18ff) even outside of the Bible.
While God’s Word must be the very basis upon which apologetic encounters are carried forth, an apologist is more than warranted in using language, illustrations, arguments, and the like which are not immediately found in Scripture. In doing so, the apologist is standing between two worlds, taking the truth of God found in Scripture and applying it to his or her place in history. Apologetics are interpretive, applicative, contextual, constructive. Apologetics do not merely consist of repeating passages of Scripture over and over again to unbelievers. They are used within one’s historical context.
2. Apologetics have been used throughout history.
They started in the Bible (e.g. Acts 17). They continued to be used in the early church. Justin Martyr is a notable apologist in history. Many others would follow. Apologetics were not always so radically divided from other theological disciplines in the past, because every discipline was a theological discipline. God was the end of knowledge. He still is, but we fail to recognize it in our modern and postmodern mindsets.
Apologetics are nothing new. Famous apologists litter every era of church history. Some of them were very bad, and others were very good. One cannot be dismissive of apologetics if one has any regard for the place of church history in current practice.
3. Apologetics assume the theological is historical.
Theological liberalism involves, among many other things, a rejection of the authority, infallibility, and/or inerrancy of Scripture. ‘Conservative’ Christians often ponder why theological ‘liberalism’ even exists. At least part of the reason liberalism exists is to satisfy apologetic concerns from an unbelieving human perspective. By driving a wedge between faith and reason, religion and science, and theology and history, liberals have attempted to ‘defend’ a version of ‘Christianity’ without really accepting it at all. In theological liberalism, the text of Scripture must be ‘demythologized.’ The supernatural is rejected in favor of a system of ethics based loosely upon the teachings of Jesus as interpreted by those who are themselves attempting to make moral determinations apart from the authority of God. Liberalism is an unbiblical form of apologetics that begins and ends with humans. It works from the ‘bottom up’ instead of from the ‘top down.’
A ‘top down’ approach to apologetics begins with the Bible and works out from there. The Bible knows nothing of a chasm between theology and history. Rather, God reveals Himself in and through the course of history, providentially guiding it and interpreting it for His glory and the good of His people. Some have understood apologetics to be the application of theology to unbelief. And so it is. But the theological is historical.
4. Apologetics assume the historical is theological.
The Bible records a great deal of history. That history is theologically interpreted. But interpreting the historical by the theological is not a practice that should end with the close of the canon of Scripture. Scripture remains the norma normans. Or, to move from the Latin to the cheesy, history is ‘His-story’ of which we are blessed to be a part. The story did not end with the Bible. Interpreting our own predicament in light of Scripture is the only way to be a biblically faithful Christian.
Recognizing that the historical is theological should give way to the prominence of biblical counseling amongst the carefully constructed and cold intellectual arguments used by many apologists. We have a place in God’s story. Since the historical is theological, apologetics are rigorously evidential in nature, but note that evidences cannot be divorced from their theological context and meaning. Cultural apologetics likewise find their home in the recognition that history does not operate in a vacuum, but in accord with the providential plan of God to bless people through following the principles set forth in His Word.
5. Apologetics are informed by historical theology.
People who believe that ‘the Bible, Jesus, and me’ is a good combination to create good doctrine are in reality setting themselves up to start a good cult. The Bible speaks of a Church founded by Jesus to help me understand the Bible. We find ourselves in a radically individualistic society. The rightful place of historical theology in the life of the Christian can hardly be overemphasized. People have read the Bible for thousands of years. They have interpreted it. They have applied its truths to their lives and societies. They have argued about it. They have debated it. They have thought through difficult subjects. God has blessed us with thousands of years of the testimony of the Church to assist us in constructive theology.
We need not jettison the aforementioned work when constructing an apologetic for the Christian faith. There is no question you or anyone else can ask regarding Christianity that has not already been raised and addressed in some form or fashion in church history. Stop being arrogant and start standing on the shoulders of giants. It is precisely because they miss the place of historical theology in apologetics that most unbelievers build such downright awful cases against Christianity. They are not actually attacking Christianity. They do not actually know Christianity. It’s not as though modern unbelievers are the first people to raise the questions or make the attacks they have. They are just generally ignorant of history. Familiarity with the God of history in church history is therefore an essential aspect of an effective biblical apologetic.